An SEO’s guide to PDFs

PDFS are incredibly useful when it comes to widely spreading information. But for SEOs, especially those conducting technical SEO, it can pose several challenges.

The main issue is that while search engines tend to prioritise HTML content over PDFs, there might be occasions when Google might encounter the latter and think it deserves to rank higher.

Obviously, this isn’t always what we want! So if you’re confused about PDFs, or are wondering how to get your HTML ranking again, this guide can help you quickly navigate some of the top-line problems of PDF SEO.

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So, why do PDFs sometimes rank higher than HTML pages?

As with most things hosted on the World Wide Web, if it has text on it, it’s readable by search engines. But what stands out about PDFs, is that the format can accommodate in-depth, keyword-rich content – often spanning multiple pages.

In comparison, HTML pages might appear sparse and can sometimes even internally link to these files, which indicates to search engines that PDFs provide better results.

The final product? PDFs that can outrank HTML web pages – causing several SEO problems.

What are some of the issues of PDFs?

While PDFs might have all the bells and whistles you’d want to rank for, there’s a reason SEOs don’t want them to catch the attention of search engines over an HTML page. These include:

  • Offering a poor UX outlook and visitor experience – especially on mobile.
  • Having bad site navigation, often redirecting users away from the website or interlinked pages.
  • Are tricky to maintain and update, quickly becoming inaccurate or outdated.
  • Not allowing structured markups to be implemented.
  • Have plenty of tracking issues, so we can’t dig into Google Analytics for accurate read rates.

So, how can we tackle them? We’ll touch on this next.

SEO strategies for your PDFs

downloading pdf on desktop

Ideally, PDFs shouldn’t be ranking over your HTML web pages. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t work in our favour. To make sure your PDFs can still be indexed and useful to your user, these tips can help.

Create SEO-led PDFs

It might seem like a given, but ensuring your PDFs are text-based rather than image-based is a good start. This means that search engines can crawl and successfully index the content, so it can still show up as a useful resource to your audience should they need it. You can find online converters to help you easily make the switch.

In a similar vein, use an online compression tool to optimise the file size help speed up load times, and stop your users from ‘bouncing’ away from your site.

Make the most of meta-data

Metadata is SEO’s bread and butter. Maximise your PDF searchability by customising data such as:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Description
  • Keywords

All of these elements can provide search engine crawlers more context about what your PDFs contain.

Use your keywords wisely

Use relevant keywords naturally throughout your PDF to provide handy information to your user and align with their search intent. As always, avoid keyword stuffing, as this can clog up your article’s readability and frustrate the user – causing them to click quit fast.

Optimise multimedia

For faster loading times and a better user experience, make sure your graphics and images are optimised with descriptive filenames and alt-text to make them more accessible to search engines.

Properly format your PDFs and make them accessible

Much like an HTML-ranked content piece, your PDF must have all the correct formatting as per SEO recommendations. That means not scrimping on useful, keyword-rich headings, subheadings, bullet points, and other formatting techniques to organise the content effectively.

Your users should always come first. Making sure your PFDs are accessible to all, with features like text-to-speech functionality, alternative text for images, and proper document structure shows that you are making reader-first content that satisfies your entire audience, regardless of ability.

Adding internal and external linking

As with any piece of content circulated online for public use, your PDFs should contain internal links that connect related content. As a result, user navigation is improved, and readers are distributed around the site, which benefits SEO.

The same goes for external linking, too. Where possible, include relevant external links within the PDF content leading to reputable sources that provide context and value to the reader.

Of course, avoid overlinking, as it can distract users and hinder your SEO efforts.

Submit, Track, monitor and update your content

Directly send your PDFs to search engines through XML sitemaps or directly through search engine webmaster tools. Sending them straight to Google makes sure that search engines are crawling and indexing PDFs correctly.

Once live, you can monitor your PDF’s performance by using analytics tools like Ahrefs or Google Analytics to gain clear and crucial insights into user behaviour. This means you can look at:

  • Downloads
  • Page views
  • User Engagement

All to help you fully assess the effectiveness of your PDFs and refine your SEO strategy depending on what you find.

From here, you can also update, refresh, and refine your content with the newest information and latest trends. Regularly updating your content tells search engines that your content is as relevant as it can be, ultimately improving your metrics and performance.

Final thoughts

With a mix of these strategies, you can optimise PDFs for SEO to maximise their impact on your website’s visibility and traffic. Of course, it’s crucial that you continually analyse performance metrics and adapt your approach if you want to leverage PDFs for SEO – making the most out of your content and its potential.

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